Shad on the St. John's

It's no secret to Florida fly-fishers that some of the best saltwater action to be had in winter happens far from the actual brine. Instead, it occurs in the bass-laden sweet waters of the famed St. John's River, where American shad make their annual pilgrimage. If you've never experienced these little saltwater speedsters, they pull like the dickens and jump like tiny tarpon, perfect adversaries for 4- and 5-weight outfits normally resigned for trout. Shad are anadromous, meaning they live in saltwater but traverse up freshwater rivers to spawn, and each winter, they move in thick waves far up the St. John's. As the late Charlie Waterman discovered decades ago, these river-bound Florida fish eat flies with reckless abandon. In keeping with my "fishy" New Year's resolution for 2009, I headed out earlier this week with pal T.J. Bettis, owner of Orlando Outfitters. T.J. and I had heard the fish had moved into the Mullet Lake region of the St. John's, and after several attempts of trying to get together over the busy holiday season, our schedules finally jived - so we hitched up the canoe and headed out! A gorgeous afternoon awaited us; little wind, blue skies and a warm, winter sun made me realize - as it always does - how lucky we Floridians are to be blessed with such rich weather and even richer fishing. I love the "old-school" nature of shad fishing; it's small boats, old jeans, floppy hats and a handful of flies - with a few grazing cattle and the occasional mossback bass mixed in! Sure enough, we found our shad, along with a mess of big specks. Toward the end of our day, we came up on a big school of fish blasting minnows on the surface. I'd never seen shad feeding like this, but had heard about it. It was quite a sight, and quick casts into boils, followed by fast retrieves, were met with vicious strikes! T.J. and I enjoyed a terrific afternoon. No, it wasn't bonefishing, but it sure was fun. And we vowed to get out again soon. Here are a few pictures from our trip. Mike Mazur, FFSW Editor